Fact Check: Peters’ Role in the Cross Controversy

Fact Check: Peters’ Role in the Cross Controversy

Photo by Sam Hodgson

The Mount Soledad cross

Statement: “Even though over 70 percent of San Diegans want to keep (the Mount Soledad) memorial where it stands, Rep. Scott Peters voted to remove the memorial. The result? Years of legal battles and millions in taxpayer dollars wasted,” House candidate Carl DeMaio’s campaign wrote in Dec. 13 online petition.

A cross that serves as the centerpiece of the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial in La Jolla has incited controversy for almost 25 years.

Vietnam War veteran and atheist Philip Paulson sued the city over in 1989, claiming the city showed favoritism toward Christians by allowing the cross on public land and violated both the state and U.S. constitutions in the process.

Decades later, the legal fight may be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Carl DeMaio used the latest news to spotlight rival Rep. Scott Peters’ role in the long-running saga.

Last week, DeMaio created an online petition to maintain the cross, and included a couple bold statements about his Democratic rival. He claimed Peters voted to remove the memorial despite San Diegans’ overwhelming approval of it, and said Peters’ actions inspired years of expensive drama in and out of court.

I decided to vet DeMaio’s claims because the cross has been a source of controversy for so long that it’s easy to forget how the situation played out and why any single action or vote was taken.

We decided to vet the two parts of DeMaio’s statement separately. Let’s start by looking at his contention that Peters voted to remove the cross.

Image: Mostly TrueStatement: “Even though over 70 percent of San Diegans want to keep (the Mount Soledad) memorial where it stands, Rep. Scott Peters voted to remove the memorial.”

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: First off, Peters votes on the Mount Soledad cross came from his time on the San Diego City Council. He hasn’t weighed in on the issue formally as a congressman.

As for votes against the cross, a DeMaio spokesman shared research that zeroed in specifically on votes Peters took in March 2005 and May 2006.

Context on the lead-up to these votes is crucial.

In 1991, U.S. District Court Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. ruled that the cross shouldn’t be on public land but left it to the city and other parties in the lawsuit to hash out what should happen to it.

Finally, in 2004, after legal fights scuttled two attempts to sell the property, the city secured tentative settlement agreements from cross supporters that would move the 43-foot cross to a local Presbyterian church.

Peters, who represented La Jolla on the Council, didn’t oppose that plan but proposed voters be allowed to weigh in. A City Council majority agreed, giving voters a chance to say whether the city should be allowed to sell the cross and the land around it to the highest bidder, thus potentially allowing the cross to remain on Mount Soledad. The buyer would determine the future of the cross.

Peters and others publicly said that if the measure failed, the city would likely move the cross.

About 59 percent of voters supported the measure, known as Proposition K, but it didn’t garner the necessary two-thirds majority.

Then another proposal emerged in March 2005: The city could transfer the land to the National Park Service and allow the memorial to stand.

Then-City Attorney Mike Aguirre said that would be unconstitutional and prompt more litigation because the city would be handing over property for the benefit of a religious group.

Peters said he couldn’t ignore the threat of more lawsuits and voted against offering the land to the federal government. Four fellow City Council members voted with him, meaning the city wouldn’t go forward with the transfer.

“As a devoted Christian, I try to love my neighbor and I try to get my camel through the eye of a needle,” he said at the March 2005 City Council meeting. “And as a public official, I promised in December, with my hand on the Bible, so help me God, to uphold the Constitution, and I can’t ignore what the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is doing.”

Cross supporters weren’t happy with the City Council vote. They gathered nearly 73,000 signatures and in July 2005, voters got a chance to weigh in again. The ballot item that resulted was billed as a way to save the memorial and keep it in its current location. This time, about 76 percent said the city should donate the land to the federal government. (This vote is the primary source DeMaio’s camp is relying on when it claims more than 70 percent of San Diegans support keeping the cross in its current location.)

This caught the attention of the veteran who initially sued the city in 1989. He sued again, and a Superior Court judge declared the ballot measure unconstitutional, as Aguirre had predicted.

This leads us to the second Peters vote the DeMaio camp focused on.

In May 2006, Thompson decided to enforce his 1991 ruling. The city had 90 days to remove the cross or pay $5,000 per day in fines.

Then-Mayor Jerry Sanders’ administration pushed for the city to appeal but needed City Council approval.

Peters was one of three City Council members who voted against an appeal. He didn’t support Sanders’ approach because he was convinced the city wouldn’t win.

“I know people are upset that this is happening,” Peters said. “I’m one of the people who’d love to see the cross stay up there. It just seems to me that the courts are just not going to let that happen.”

The appeal was approved in a 5-3 vote, without Peters’ backing.

About a month later, the court declined to hear the case again but U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy issued a temporary stay and former Rep. Duncan Hunter later managed to slip in a last-minute bill that put the land in federal hands. The measure, eventually signed by then-President George W. Bush, seized the property via eminent domain.

But that didn’t stop the lawsuits.

Almost eight years later, the cross remains atop Mount Soledad, though a U.S. district judge ruled again last week that its presence is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court may ultimately determine its fate.

Recent developments have made it an ideal topic for DeMaio, who hopes to unseat Peters in 2014. Let’s revisit the aspiring congressman’s statements.

Peters did take at least two votes that imperiled supporters’ wishes that the cross remain on Mount Soledad but DeMaio’s statement fails to acknowledge important context about Peters’ actions.

Each time, Peters said he wanted to keep the cross at Mount Soledad but that the courts didn’t seem likely to support him. He was concerned with minimizing the city’s legal bills and obeying a court order.

These are important nuances not reflected in DeMaio’s claim so I decided this part of the congressional hopeful’s claim is mostly true.

Image: Huckster PropagandaStatement: ”The result? Years of legal battles and millions in taxpayer dollars wasted.”

Determination: Huckster Propaganda

Analysis: The second part of DeMaio’s claim is more troublesome.

He implied that Peters is solely responsible for the years of legal bills surrounding a case that began in 1989, more than a decade before Peters was elected to the City Council.

A DeMaio spokesman told me Peters’ votes contributed to hefty legal bills for taxpayers.

“The result of the back-and-forth on the issues is years of legal battle and expenses,” spokesman Dave McCulloch said.

But it’s illogical to point to Peters – or any City Council member who voted with Peters on the cross issue, for that matter – and imply he’s solely responsible for a legal fight that began before they even took office.

Furthermore, Peters’ explanations for his 2005 and 2006 votes hinged on a desire to minimize expensive litigation for the city. Each time, he said it seemed clear that the courts wouldn’t side with the city and that the city would end up with costly legal bills.

DeMaio’s statement doesn’t acknowledge this – or explain that the city actually faced a lawsuit after voters said the cross should be transferred to federal ownership, the precise scenario Peters’ vote sought to avoid. Since that transfer, the federal government is now the primary government entity footing legal bills but it’s cross supporters and city voters who prolonged the decades-long court battle.

I asked the DeMaio camp what might have happened if Peters or fellow City Council members had voted differently. Would the legal fight over the cross be over? Would the taxpayer expense be lessened?

DeMaio’s spokesman didn’t want to speculate.

“What might have happened in another fashion or another way? I can’t predict the future or the past as a result of a different vote,” said Dave McCulloch, the DeMaio spokesman.

McCulloch later said Peters’ votes contributed to the long-running legal quagmire but didn’t specify how, or detail how different votes might have changed  the situation.

He forwarded an email the campaign sent to supporters promoting the petition. The email wasn’t as direct in linking Peters’ votes to squandered taxpayer money.

“Congressman Scott Peters supported the removal of the memorial, and since then we have seen millions in taxpayer dollars spent on endless lawsuits.”

McCulloch argued that DeMaio’s overarching point is that Peters’ votes played a role in the saga surrounding the cross, and the significant legal bills that have come with it.

But the petition itself put the blame squarely on Peters, and the suggestion that Peters’ votes led millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted on lawsuits is deceiving.

We dub a statement huckster propaganda when it’s not only inaccurate but it’s reasonable to expect the person or organization knew this and made the claim anyway to gain an advantage.

This ruling applies here.

DeMaio’s claim implied Peters votes spurred two decades of costly court fights and that’s simply wrong, and DeMaio almost certainly knows that.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit that depends on you, our readers. Please donate to keep the service strong. Click here to find out more about our supporters and how we operate independently.


Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

  • 448 Posts
  • 0
    Followers

Show comments
Before you comment, read these simple guidelines on what is not allowed.

37 comments
Arizona Bread
Arizona Bread

Lisa,

You are likely correct in presuming the 70% figure is derived from the 2005 ballot initiative. Where your Fact Check needs a second look is in whether a vote taken eight years ago reflects the current view of San Diegans. After all, DeMaio uses the present tense to characterize a vote taken in 2005. He says San Diegans "want," not wanted to keep the memorial where it stands.

Unless the MSMA is holding back some research or you can find something to the contrary, the fact is there is no wide spread public understanding of what San Diegans currently think about the cross. Reader comments, reports from the UT, DeMaio's assertions and talk radio are fun but not a representative sample.

Furthermore, you should consider DeMaio's claim in the context of the actual vote. Check the numbers and you'll find that while 76% of those who voted voted to save the cross, this figure, or 192,000 voters, represents only 34% of registered voters in 2005 and only 21% of eligible voters (residents 18+) at that time. The 2005 vote was hardly the super majority of (all) San Diegans DeMaio is attempting to claim.

Arizona Bread
Arizona Bread subscriber

Lisa,

You are likely correct in presuming the 70% figure is derived from the 2005 ballot initiative. Where your Fact Check needs a second look is in whether a vote taken eight years ago reflects the current view of San Diegans. After all, DeMaio uses the present tense to characterize a vote taken in 2005. He says San Diegans "want," not wanted to keep the memorial where it stands.

Unless the MSMA is holding back some research or you can find something to the contrary, the fact is there is no wide spread public understanding of what San Diegans currently think about the cross. Reader comments, reports from the UT, DeMaio's assertions and talk radio are fun but not a representative sample.

Furthermore, you should consider DeMaio's claim in the context of the actual vote. Check the numbers and you'll find that while 76% of those who voted voted to save the cross, this figure, or 192,000 voters, represents only 34% of registered voters in 2005 and only 21% of eligible voters (residents 18+) at that time. The 2005 vote was hardly the super majority of (all) San Diegans DeMaio is attempting to claim.

Jerry Ollinger
Jerry Ollinger

I am a veteran, and like other veterans, I went to war under the American Flag, not a cross. The Soledad Mt. Cross should be replaced by an American Flag. The American Flag is a symbol that ALL of us veterans love and can identify with. I totally agree with the ruling of the courts and I applaud Congressman Scott Peters for standing up for the Constitution. Carl DeMaio, as usual, is on the wrong side of this issue. He should read the Constitution.

chezron
chezron subscriber

I believe we should follow the word of the constitution, otherwise why was it written?
Additionally, there are crosses on Mount Helix, Mount Soledad, and several other peak vistas in San Diego. I consider them eyesores spoiling an otherwise grand view. Please remove them all! They are offensive to anyone who is not a Christian and there are plenty of us. Sure, if you are a Christian and you OWN a hilltop feel free to make some inane statement like putting up a cross, but it shouldn't be allowed otherwise. It sure won't guarantee your passage to heaven-- and that is what you are looking for isn't it?

Patrick Flynn
Patrick Flynn subscriber

As an atheist, I'm not offended by the presence of the Mt. Soledad cross. However as an American I am offended by the ease by which you would disregard of the law of the United States of America.

Meri Jo Petrivelli
Meri Jo Petrivelli

Whether an elected official "supports the cross" or not should be irrelevant. As it happens, Scott Peters did and does support the cross. He also, as a condition of his elected office, is required to support the constitution, which he does. This is a constitutional issue, not a religious or moral one. Scott came down on the pragmatic side of it, realizing the futility (and expense)of continuing the battle. Unfortunately it is also an emotional issue for a lot of people. Carl DeMaio is smart enough to realize that facts and context don't matter very much to emotional voters. It's probably effective campaign strategy, regardless of how disheartening it is to people who look beyond the tag line, slogans, and provocative headlines.

Meri Jo Petrivelli
Meri Jo Petrivelli subscribermember

Whether an elected official "supports the cross" or not should be irrelevant. As it happens, Scott Peters did and does support the cross. He also, as a condition of his elected office, is required to support the constitution, which he does. This is a constitutional issue, not a religious or moral one. Scott came down on the pragmatic side of it, realizing the futility (and expense)of continuing the battle. Unfortunately it is also an emotional issue for a lot of people. Carl DeMaio is smart enough to realize that facts and context don't matter very much to emotional voters. It's probably effective campaign strategy, regardless of how disheartening it is to people who look beyond the tag line, slogans, and provocative headlines.

Brian Flynn
Brian Flynn subscriber

It's more than offending some athiests. It's offending all of us who support the U.S. constitution. DeMaio is just pandering to the far right religious wing nuts that think public opinion outweighs the constitution. If it is truly a memorial to veterans, then why not take it down and erect a non-religious symbol that represents all veterans....not just the christian ones?

uaplumber
uaplumber

uaplumber
4 Minutes Ago
One can see that the religious intolerance espoused by several of the commentators and the blatant "who cares" statement shows that bigots still abound both in La Jolla and the readership of The Voice. Does "their" GOD need a cross or he/she will get mad and send us all to hell (which may or may not exist)? I am amazed at the lengths that some will go to show what "good" Christians they are while at the same time showing no resemblance to Jesus or his supposed teachings at all. This cross has been a lightning rod for emotional and non reasoning incantations for so long that DeMaio now seems to relish in rehashing the knee jerk reasons for the controversy thus stirring up misguided passions to prove a non point in his selection of misstatements to garner a prominent position in the upcoming election. Shame on him and any who support this nonsense and I hope that the Supreme Court puts an end to this controversy and lets the memorial to veterans stand but allows for the removal of the "religious" symbol which adds nothing to the respect due to those who served and died in defense of our country.

DeMaio needs to go and so does this and any other "religious symbol" on public government property as required in the US Constitution under the establishment clause. Lets not be persuaded by those who claim to "know" that Christianity is the only true way and that without such symbols as the cross and 10 commandments, etc., that we shall all cease to exist as free people and free thinkers. Heading into a bright and prosperous future demands that we , as a group, cast off the shackles of the past and prepare a new generation to lead us with honesty and integrity and stop the demagoguery as touted by DeMaio. Religions (all, from the Greeks multitude of choices to present day Christianity, Islam, Budism, Jewish, etc.) from time immemorial have done humanity a disservice and need to be classed as artifacts from which knowledge should be gleaned but taken in context as delusional guilt response evoking meant to keep the masses under control and in the "mysterious" dark when facing both turmoil in life the ultimate end for all in death. The cross atop the mountain will do nothing to improve ones life now or afterlife (if there is one, which I doubt) and should be done away with in the name of freedom for ALL!
EditDeleteLikeReply

Julie Wright
Julie Wright

I understand that lawyers and special interests can spin anything the way they want but the fact is that this nation was founded as a Christian nation that took pains to ensure that all would be free to practice their own religion. Today it seems as if there is an all-out attack on anything Christian and I resent it. The cross belongs on Mt Soledad out of respect for history both of our nation and of the decision to out the cross there in the first place.

Julie Wright
Julie Wright subscribermember

I understand that lawyers and special interests can spin anything the way they want but the fact is that this nation was founded as a Christian nation that took pains to ensure that all would be free to practice their own religion. Today it seems as if there is an all-out attack on anything Christian and I resent it. The cross belongs on Mt Soledad out of respect for history both of our nation and of the decision to out the cross there in the first place.

John Loughlin
John Loughlin

You'd hope that anybody running for Congress in California would look to uphold The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the No Preference Clause of the California Constitution, but evidently Carl DeMaio doesn't.

John Loughlin
John Loughlin subscriber

You'd hope that anybody running for Congress in California would look to uphold The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the No Preference Clause of the California Constitution, but evidently Carl DeMaio doesn't.

Jim Neri
Jim Neri

Equally intriguing that Eruv in La Jolla Shores...

Jim Neri
Jim Neri subscribermember

Equally intriguing that Eruv in La Jolla Shores...

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

Intriguing that a cross was erected and maintained above community with a history of institutionalized anti-Semitism.A specter from our past: Longtime residents will always remember the stain left on the Jewel by an era of housing discriminationhttp://www.lajollalight.com/2005/04/07/a-specter-from-our-past-longtime-residents-will-always-remember-the-stain-left-on-the-jewel-by-an-era-of-housing-discrimination/A 1926 advertisement in the La Jolla Journal tempts readers to visit this seaside town. With modern-art cartoon drawings of hipsters sipping martinis, it advertises a brand-new neighborhood being developed in La Jolla Shores. The ad contains a clause...

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Intriguing that a cross was erected and maintained above community with a history of institutionalized anti-Semitism.A specter from our past: Longtime residents will always remember the stain left on the Jewel by an era of housing discriminationhttp://www.lajollalight.com/2005/04/07/a-specter-from-our-past-longtime-residents-will-always-remember-the-stain-left-on-the-jewel-by-an-era-of-housing-discrimination/A 1926 advertisement in the La Jolla Journal tempts readers to visit this seaside town. With modern-art cartoon drawings of hipsters sipping martinis, it advertises a brand-new neighborhood being developed in La Jolla Shores. The ad contains a clause...

Jim Neri
Jim Neri

Like Scott Peters I personally support leaving this symbol of hope in place but I voted for him to uphold the Constitution of the United States and not cherry-pick the parts of it he likes. DeMaio is running for office and using this emotional issue to to get votes lets us all know what kind of representative we would have if he were elected. Like Scott Peters I vote for the Constitution.

Jim Neri
Jim Neri subscribermember

Like Scott Peters I personally support leaving this symbol of hope in place but I voted for him to uphold the Constitution of the United States and not cherry-pick the parts of it he likes. DeMaio is running for office and using this emotional issue to to get votes lets us all know what kind of representative we would have if he were elected. Like Scott Peters I vote for the Constitution.

Marilynn Gallagher
Marilynn Gallagher

Lisa, I applaud any politician who has conviction and stands by it. It helps me make my decision. Good for you Carl for supporting the Cross. Evidently, The Cross has a positive connotation to most San Diegans. If it offends some atheists, so what? We all know good lawyers can spin anything. I grew up on Mt SOLEDAD and as I understand it, The Cross was erected as a tribute to Veterans rather then as a symbol of religion. If Scott Peters voted against it staying, then I am glad to know that...whether that fact is exaggerated, who cares? DUH, They are politicians.

Carrie Schneider
Carrie Schneider

Actually, this nation was explicitly founded specifically non-committal to a particular religion. From the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Jerry Ollinger
Jerry Ollinger

If this nation was founded as a Christian nation then why isn't God or Jesus mentioned in the Constitution? Christians may have been the founders of this nation, but they made this a secular nation. Our forefathers gave us freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

Patrick Flynn
Patrick Flynn

The founders of our nation were not christians. Of the first 7 American presidents [George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson] not one professed a belief in christianity. You are simply wrong to claim that America was founded as a christian nation.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

If the Founders intended that this be a Christian nation, they really blew it by asserting, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

Carrie Schneider
Carrie Schneider subscribermember

Actually, this nation was explicitly founded specifically non-committal to a particular religion. From the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Patrick Flynn
Patrick Flynn subscriber

The founders of our nation were not christians. Of the first 7 American presidents [George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson] not one professed a belief in christianity. You are simply wrong to claim that America was founded as a christian nation.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

If the Founders intended that this be a Christian nation, they really blew it by asserting, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher

Flame-fanning non-sequitur. Anti-semitism was so widespread in 1926 (look it up) that there was nothing overtly special about La Jolla THEN. Let's get back to the present.

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher subscriber

Flame-fanning non-sequitur. Anti-semitism was so widespread in 1926 (look it up) that there was nothing overtly special about La Jolla THEN. Let's get back to the present.

Jerry Ollinger
Jerry Ollinger

What I read in your comment about the Cross and Atheists is, "You are Christian and you rule."

tomp
tomp

Marilynn--
Your "understanding" is simply wrong on the history; read the court cases. The "Mt. Soledad Easter Cross" was erected as a symbol of religion. Period. The courts could find no mention of it being a tribute to veterans until _after_ the first lawsuit was filed in 1989. The reason the courts keep ruling that the cross is a violation is that the "veterans memorial" and additional plaques were added as a transparent smokescreen after the fact, in efforts to retroactively make the cross part of something not primarily religious. Feel free to support the cross remaining on Mt. Soledad; feel free to vote for DeMaio. But please do not assert falsehoods prefaced by "as I understand it", that sounds very lawyerly.

Sharon Muczynski
Sharon Muczynski

I believe we should follow the word of the constitution, otherwise why was it written?
Additionally, there are crosses on Mount Helix, Mount Soledad, and several other peak vistas in San Diego. I consider them eyesores spoiling an otherwise grand view. Please remove them all! They are offensive to anyone who is not a Christian and there are plenty of us. Sure, if you are a Christian and you OWN a hilltop feel free to make some inane statement like putting up a cross, but it shouldn't be allowed otherwise. It sure won't guarantee your passage to heaven-- and that is what you are looking for isn't it?

Patrick Flynn
Patrick Flynn

As an atheist, I'm not offended by the presence of the Mt. Soledad cross. However as an American I am offended by the ease by which you would disregard of the law of the United States of America.

Brian Flynn
Brian Flynn

It's more than offending some athiests. It's offending all of us who support the U.S. constitution. DeMaio is just pandering to the far right religious wing nuts that think public opinion outweighs the constitution. If it is truly a memorial to veterans, then why not take it down and erect a non-religious symbol that represents all veterans....not just the christian ones?

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher

Nice effort to split hairs. So what if they called themselves "Deists" or "Theists" instead of "Christians"?

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher subscriber

Nice effort to split hairs. So what if they called themselves "Deists" or "Theists" instead of "Christians"?

Erik Hanson
Erik Hanson subscriber

@Bit-watcher: It was special. Jews had no problem living in places like Bankers HIll or South Park, just look where there were Jewish temples in the old days. The fact is that La Jolla realtors had a system where their little clique of a handful of members agreed to not allow for-sale signs in the community and, of course, there was no online MLS like now. If you wanted to buy a house in La Jolla, you couldn't even know what was for sale without visiting a realtor's office and getting vetted first. This prevented potential buyers from contacting sellers directly and making offers, which would have let the seller know how much money the realtors were costing them. This even extended well into the era when there was a whole African American district in La Jolla, complete with African American churches, one of which remains to this day.